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Helping seniors this holiday season

December 19, 2011

The elderly population is not immune to holiday-related depression, especially those seniors who are isolated, lonely or ill. Community advocates encourage residents to reach out to local seniors this holiday season – whether it’s helping with chores around the house or yard, or making a visit to a nursing home – and continuing that outreach throughout the year. Photo courtesy metrocreativeconnection.com

While the holiday season comes with parties and gatherings, presents for the kids and charitable endeavors to assist the less fortunate, according to local health care and social service advocates, it can also bring on feelings of loneliness, isolation, depression and desertion – especially for the mobility-challenged senior citizen population.
It is in this vein that various community groups come forward each year with programs and projects to ensure holiday cheer reaches those residents living in local nursing homes or who are homebound and cannot participate in seasonal festivities. The Bishop Elks Lodge, for example, runs a senior gift program, while the Bishop Police Department and its personnel conduct an annual carolling gig at the Bishop Care Center and Sterling Heights.
But advocates say there are also ways neighbors and friends can help add a little enjoyment to a senior’s life during the holiday season and into the new year. Whether it’s sweeping up leaves for the elderly widowed neighbor, or bringing a batch of cookies or even a dinner to an old married couple that doesn’t get out as often as they used to, or going to the Senior Center to hold a hand or listen to a story of a resident, there is something everyone can do to help a senior.
The one caveat for helping a senior, or anyone, is to know the senior that one is trying to assist, said Jean Turner, director of Inyo County’s Health and Human Services. And, she added, “we all know a senior” in our family or neighborhood that could use a helping hand.
Turner said that she and her family personally help out seniors on her block by shoveling snow during the “rare Bishop snow storm” or raking leaves. She said above all else, seniors, the elderly and others confined to a bed or the indoors need companionship.
“Give the gift of time,” Turner said.
Sally Symons, community liaison for the Bishop Care Center, said, “Five minutes means the world to these people.”
Pete Watercott, senior advocate and former cook at the Bishop Senior Center, said companionship is more valuable to many seniors than even financial affairs. Watercott plays music regularly the second Thursday of every month at Sterling Heights and the Bishop Care Center and invites anyone interested to come out and enjoy the music, hold hands with a resident and be a part of the fun.
“Reaching out to older relatives and friends who are alone is something all of us should do,” Barry Lebowitz, Ph.D., deputy director of UC San Diego’s Stein Institute for Research on Aging, said in a paper published on ucsdnews.ucsd.edu. “Loneliness is a difficult emotion for anyone.
“In some people, the ‘holiday blues’ represent the exacerbation of an ongoing depressive illness,” Lebowitz said. “Depression is a dangerous and life-threatening illness in older people. Tragically, suicide rates increase with age, specifically for older men. Depression is not a normal part of aging and should never be ignored or written off.”
Watercott said that because of challenges with mobility or other hurdles, many seniors are isolated. The isolation can be exacerbated this time of year when there is so much socializing and visiting going on and seniors can sometimes be unintentionally forgotten or left out of activities. He said he and his wife have “adopted” a neighborhood woman who can’t get around much. He said it has been very rewarding, for both the neighbor and he and his wife, to bring her to concerts and events.
There are many things seniors may need help with for the holidays, Turner said, and offered some specific suggestions. She said the labor of love that is writing and addressing Christmas cards can become a difficult task for weathered hands and can be a fun activity for kids and grandparents alike. Holiday lights may need hanging, wood chopped or stacked or brought indoors, and errands run to the post office or market, Turner said, adding that all people really need to do is ask what seniors need help with.
Turner noted that a visit with a senior does not necessarily mean just sitting and listening; she suggested organizing a talk with an activity, like helping with chores or preparing a meal.
Michele Lohr, of In-Home Supportive Services registry, said she helps the seniors she knows near her home. She said she checks in on them to make sure things are fine, see if they need something, maybe bring over a batch of cookies or a little extra from a meal.
“Be kind,” Lohr said, as kind as one would be this time of year and extend that feeling through the rest of the year.
Symons echoed a similar sentiment, saying that during the holidays the Care Center is inundated with folks wanting to participate and help out. But, once the holiday season fades so do the extra volunteers until next holiday season. She said she’d like to see the enthusiasm last throughout the year.
The Bishop Care Center is also wrapping up its Senior
Wish Tree project, where members of the public pick a bulb with a senior’s Christmas gift wish list on it and then purchases the gift. Symons said the bulbs have all been taken this year, but the Care Center is still accepting unwrapped, generic gifts for men or women. She said this way everyone at the center gets a gift.
“Think of the impact if everyone reached out and sat down and listened (with a senior),” Turner said, adding that the world would be a wonderful place.

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